In 1999 I took on a project that left a permanent mark. A collaboration with actor/director Marcella Trowbridge, the False Door was a play for teenagers (many of them from the projects) about coping with loss. Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ 6 stages of coping with loss provided the conceptual foundation and as Musical Director, I was tasked with incorporating and teaching some songs Marcella selected, some I selected and some I wrote (including “I See The Light,” which moved people in a way that caused me to deeply re-evaluate my purpose as a musician).
While I’d heard plenty of songs about death before this, I never really considered “coping with loss” to be a significant or meaningful topic for music to address. While it’s a subtle distinction on one level, it’s one that I found pretty mind-blowing and one that has had a significant impact on my consciousness as a musician and as a person. This list is a compendium of some of the songs I’ve found most useful in that context.
I stayed away from instrumental songs (“Goodbye Porkpie Hat” or “I Remember Clifford”), non-English songs (folk laments from Eastern Europe or South America), songs whose reference to mortality is particularly oblique (Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” or “I Shall Be Released”), songs that are just too sad to get into the “coping” part (Sarah McLachlan’s “Hold On” or John Hiatt’s “Friend Of Mine”) and (with one exception below) songs that are about this sort of loss only if the interpretation is tweaked a bit (though I’d probably have included “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” by Cole Porter if I could come up with a recording that to me truly evokes the song’s pathos – apologies to Jeanne Lee and Little Jimmy Scott).
While these are my “favorites,” I encourage comments from anyone wanting to suggest others! I may not need people arguing with me about bass solos and such on my other Top 10 lists, but for my own sake and others’, I’m all for making this list longer and more fertile.
1 ) “Wanting Memories” by Sweet Honey In the Rock (from Still On the Journey)
Ysaye Barnwell’s song about readjusting to life after loss is simultaneously one of the most deeply moving and one of the most mature and realistic songs about the challenges of that process.
2 ) “Family Reserve” by Lyle Lovett (from Joshua Judges Ruth)
If there were a lifetime achievement award for addressing death in songs, I’d hand it to Lyle Lovett. This album features several of the best songs on the topic I have ever heard, so I should give a shout-out to the heartbreaking “Baltimore” and the impressively lighthearted “Since the Last Time.” This tender portrayal of family members who have moved on and those left behind is another one with which I can seldom sing along because I get choked up, even amidst some of the song’s humorous moments.
3 ) “That Day Is Done” by Elvis Costello and the Fairfield Four (from Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray by the Fairfield Four)
This soulful and lyrically clever song, a songwriting collaboration between Costello and Paul McCartney, was first a part of Paul’s Flowers In the Dirt album and it’s perfectly nice there. But this collaboration between Costello and the great gospel group the Fairfield Four (accompanied by Larry Knectel, whose tear-jerking piano playing can be traced back to the original “Bridge Over Troubled Water”) is full of unbridled and musically unencumbered emotion. I can’t ever sing along, because I get choked up too quickly and consistently.
4 ) “Joy Will Find A Way” by Bruce Cockburn (from Joy Will Find A Way)
Of the songs on this list, “Joy Will Find A Way” is the one I discovered as a direct consequence of my work on The False Door. Ironically before this I knew Bruce Cockburn only through his far-less-tender 1980s anti-war protest song “If I Had A Rocket Launcher.” This song, however, crystallizes much of what is humane and emotionally profound about learning to cope with loss.
5 ) “Going Up Yonder” by Walter Hawkins (from Love Alive)
There is no shortage of gospel music addressing mortality in the context of the paradise that many faiths believe lies beyond this realm. I will admit that in the last month and change, there is a lot of comfort in the notion that people can Go Up Yonder to be with their Lord. And Tramaine Hawkins sure does make it easy to believe, as do the members of Walter Hawkins’ band and choir.
6 ) “Back on the Chain Gang” by the Pretenders (single, released on Learning To Crawl and various compliations)
I heard this song a bazillion times when it came out when I was nine and didn’t have any sense of what it was about (maybe the video wasn’t narrative enough? I don’t know). In any case, I re-examined it through the False Door project in 1999 and wow, this might just take the cake for mature, touching songs about loss that still hit the upper reaches of the pop charts.
7 ) “A Little Bit More” by Vinx (from In My Fatha’s House)
This inexplicably obscure album features several songs about Vinx’s loss of his father. Some are anguished and angry, while this one is melancholy, gorgeous and very tender. His singing is spot-on and he gets help from Herbie Hancock on piano and background vocalists including a then-unknown Sheryl Crow.
8 ) “Saint Behind the Glass” by Los Lobos (from Kiko)
This rare vocal turn for Louie Perez is a tender and evocative portrait of a spirit watching over those left behind to grieve. The brightness of the music adds an appreciated levity to things.
9 ) “Fire and Rain” by the Isley Brothers (from Givin’ It Back)
James Taylor’s original is of course moving in its own right, but this cover version really does it for me. It begins and ends with a somewhat eerie vamp, and in between Ronald Isley imbues it with a wonderful passion and soul.
10 ) “We’ll Meet Again” by Johnny Cash (from American IV: The Man Comes Around)
I’m granting myself this wild-card (it’s my list-party and I’ll cry if [and surrounding any emotionally compelling song] I want to), even though the “meeting again” more literally refers to doing so in the physical realm. The song was conceived as a WWII-era bit of encouragement, and the first version I ever heard was Peggy Lee’s with Benny Goodman. The first time I heard this one, though, was shortly after June Carter Cash’s passing, and I just can’t extract it from hearing Johnny’s reassurance that this was only a temporary separation for them. The song is delivered in a lighthearted manner, at least on the surface, but at least in this context I find it so moving.